Ah yes, the Hex. It may just be the greatest competition in sport. I kid of course, but the Hex is always a great supply of competitive football, and it is nights like Thursday that make it so memorable. Three games were played Thursday night, which marked the halfway point in this final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. I don’t mean to get sentimental, but with a 48 team world cup looming in the distance, who knows how long the Hex will even last for? Let’s just enjoy it while we can, I suppose.
And this Sunday, we are treated to the grandest game of them all: Mexico vs USA at Estadio Azteca. The biggest rivalry in CONCACAF might be a lot more competitive on American soil, but it is the game on Mexican turf that is the biggest of the cycle. Both teams won fairly simple home fixtures on Thursday night; Mexico handled Honduras while USA picked up three points against Trinidad and Tobago. There’s a lot to look at heading into this one, so let’s jump into it:
Pulisic’s Bold Claim
If you haven’t heard already, the 18 year old American midfielder has promised USA fans that the stars and stripes will “come out of there [Azteca] with a win.” Mexico fans will argue that the kid has no idea what he’s in store for once he takes the field in Mexico City, at the world famous fortress that is Estadio Azteca. He’s never dealt with the atmosphere, and he’s never dealt with such a hostile crowd, but Pulisic knows that.
The youngster has a right to be confident, and he has been playing very well of late, including against Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday (when he scored twice) and in the German Cup final back in May. The 18 year old has established himself as a force in CONCACAF and may already be the best player for the US, so it will be interesting to see how he does during his first game at the Azteca.
El Tri Missing Stars
With the news that several Mexican stars, the trio of Miguel Layun, Andres Guardado, and Rafa Marquez, will not be playing in the big match due to prior injury, Mexico will need to flex it’s depth in order to deal with the US. Carlos Salcedo, who picked up a knock against Honduras on Thursday is also out of commission.
Much of Mexico’s defense against Honduras, and presumably against the US as well, lacks experience on the international stage. Oswaldo Alanís has just 15 caps, while Luis Reyes has only 4. People have thrown Néstor Araujo’s name out into the mix as well, but the former Olympian isn’t exactly a veteran either. Jesús Dueñas, who will likely replace the injured Salcedo, also has just 16 caps. Diego Reyes has over 40 caps to his name, but in total this El Tri defense has 76 international games total; for comparison, the US defense that played against Trinidad and Tobago had a combined 135 caps. And if Bruce Arena decides to go with the veteran Demarcus Beasley over the young Jorge Villafaña, that US defense would have a combined 253 games played; well over triple what the Mexican defense has.
Now, of course, most people will agree that talent is more important than experience. That is primarily the case, but for this game, when the stakes and pressure are so high, experience can go a long way. Let’s not forget, the US may have to deal with the hostile conditions, but the pressure is all on El Tri. The fans and the Mexican public expect nothing less than a win, while the Americans are essentially playing with house money; they would be delighted with a point.
Because of all of that, it may be in Mexico’s best interest to come out aggressive. At Azteca, an early lead can quickly snowball into a big one, and scoring early could flip the pressure from the El Tri defense onto the American side.
Dempsey and Arena Feud?
Anyone who saw the US game on Thursday saw Clint Dempsey was visibly upset after being subbed off for Kellyn Acosta in the 60th minute. The 34 year old is one goal away from Landon Donovan’s all-time scoring record, but who knows if he’ll get the chance to score that historic goal on Sunday night. US coach Bruce Arena says the “feud” is nothing:
“He wants to be on the field. However, my job is to do what I think is right for the team to position us to win a game. I understand that. He’s a very competitive guy. We talked about it. He’s okay.”
Maybe Arena is telling the truth, but certainly tensions could rise depending on whether or not Dempsey is in the lineup come Sunday. If he gets the start, then sure, problem solved, but if he DOESN’T get the start against Mexico, then relations may deteriorate. After all, Bruce Arena himself says Dempsey is a competitive player, and no doubt wants nothing more than another crack at Mexico, especially at the Azteca. All we can do for now is speculate, but if Dempsey is not in the starting eleven on Sunday night (and I predict he won’t be) this little clash between player and coach will be something worth keeping an eye on.